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Balkanized Homecoming

As Iraqi Refugees Start to Trickle Back, Authorities Worry About How They Will Fit Into the New Baghdad

Iraqis carry their luggage through Baghdad after returning from Syria this month. Many refugees come back to find their houses occupied or ransacked, and their neighborhoods transformed into sectarian strongholds.
Iraqis carry their luggage through Baghdad after returning from Syria this month. Many refugees come back to find their houses occupied or ransacked, and their neighborhoods transformed into sectarian strongholds. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007; Page A01


This Story

When the Iraqi government last month invited home the 1.4 million refugees who had fled this war-ravaged country for Syria -- and said it would send buses to pick them up -- the United Nations and the U.S. military reacted with horror.

U.N. refugee officials immediately advised against the move, saying any new arrivals risked homelessness, unemployment and deprivation in a place still struggling to take care of the people already here. For the military, the prospect of refugees returning to reclaim houses long since occupied by others, particularly in Baghdad, threatened to destroy fragile security improvements.

"It's a problem that everybody can grasp," said a senior U.S. diplomat here. "You move back to the house that you left and find that somebody else has moved into the house, maybe because they've been displaced from someplace else. And it's even more difficult than that, because in many cases the local militias . . . have seized control and threw out anybody in that neighborhood they didn't like."

The vast population upheaval resulting from Iraq's sectarian conflict has left the country with yet another looming crisis. At least one of every six Iraqis -- about 4.5 million people -- has left home, some for other parts of Iraq, others for neighboring nations.

Many have run out of money and options in Syria, Jordan and other Arab countries, all of which have recently intensified efforts to evict Iraqi refugees. Others have exhausted the patience and resources of family and friends. Lured by reports of security improvements and encouraged by a government eager to demonstrate normalcy, they have started to trickle back over the past two months.

The question of how to deal with them is posing a complex new challenge for Iraq's government, as well as for U.S. military commanders, diplomats and international aid workers here. U.S. and U.N. officials have been pushing Iraqi leaders to develop programs and policies aimed at addressing the vexing problems associated with returning refugees.

"It's very easy to say, 'Come home,' " said Guy Siri, the U.N. deputy humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. "But come home where, and how? It's much more complex than that. You have to look at the whole environment, how the community will accept them, whether it's economically viable. There's a whole lot of thinking on the government side to be done."

Kareem Sadi Haadi, 48, an engineer who now works in a shoe store in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, said he returned from Damascus last month with his wife and daughter only because his savings ran out and he was not allowed to work legally in Syria. He said he is trying to save enough money to flee Iraq again.

The Iraqi government should not be telling refugees that the country is secure or offering to ferry them back from Syria, Haadi said, adding, "They are misleading Iraqis 100 percent. Eighty percent of those who want to come back is because of residency complications in Syria."

The thorny issues were evident when the first and so far only group of families was bused back from Syria by the Iraqi government on Nov. 28. According to the United Nations, only about a third of the 30 families returned to their original homes. Most of the rest, finding a new sectarian makeup in their neighborhood or their property pillaged, moved in with already overburdened relatives in other parts of the Baghdad area.

For many Iraqis, the homes they left no longer exist. Houses have been looted, destroyed or occupied. Most Baghdad neighborhoods, where Shiites and Sunnis once lived side by side, have been transformed into religiously homogeneous bastions where members of the other sect dare not tread.

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